In spite of efforts to commercialize it, March 8 International Women’s Day is the day we recognize women’s movements for gender equality. It goes back to the early 20th century movements of U.S. women workers for fair treatment in the sweatshops. Not coincidentally, the United States is one of the few countries not to recognize the date that emanated from its own history, but from the repressed underside of it.
Feminist lawyer Alda Facio notes that “equality” is a universal human right. She points out that equality doesn’t mean being exactly the same, but rather implies the elimination of all forms of discrimination and above all of the partriarchal system in which men exercise control over women–over their labor, their sexuality and reproduction, even over their mobility and possibilities for human development. Gender equality brings with it specific legal obligations of the state. After more than a century of pressuring for equality, the majority of governments do not comply with these obligations.
On March 8 in nations throughout the Western Hemisphere, people celebrated the day with forums, presentations and cultural events, and thousands of Facebook messages, ranging from the purely social to overtly political. It’s common practice to take stock on this day of where we are and how far we’ve come in the movement for full gender equality and respect for the human rights of women. This year in the Americas, the situation is getting worse rather than better.
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There are many reasons for the increase in violence against women and the offensive on women’s rights, and they vary from place to place. But three stand out:
The first is militarization. In Mexico and Central America, thousands of troops and specialized police have been sent out into neighborhoods and communities in the name of the war on drugs. There are entire occupied zones in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, in particular.
Militarism is a classic expression of a patriarchal system. It strips us of our rights and agency in the name of fear, arguing the need for protection of the weak, among them women. It is anti-democratic and imposes a system of hierarchies, secrecy and social control. It denies or suspends collective values of human rights, cooperation and harmonious relations in society and with nature.
Although Latin American governments have spent millions of their public budgets on “national security”–along with U.S. aid packages to bolster militarization through the Merida Initiative, Central American Regional Security initiatives, Plan Colombia and others–the strategy of increasing repressive enforcement measures to attack organized crime invariably causes more violence. For example, in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border where the phenomena of systematic femicide was first identified in the early nineties, femicides increased tenfold following the entry of the armed forces to supposedly fight organized crime. In Honduras, femicides rose 62% following the Honduran coup d’etat and violence against women continues to rise in what has now become the most violent and one of the most militarized nations of the region.
At the same time, legislatures have passed dozens of laws and created new posts and institutions specifically to deal with violence against women, especially sex trafficking and femicide. What they don’t do is solve the cases, punish the perpetrators and stop the violence. This simulation, a feigned concern that fails to translate into political will, is just a way to talk about the problem without ending it.
Given the strong correlation between militarization and violence against women, it’s clear that government security forces in our countries are not simply incapable of protecting women–they pose a threat to women’s security and physical integrity. Reports of rapes and abuses at the hand of the protectors are all to common.
The second is this stage of predatory capitalism. There’s a fierce battle going on over the earth’s finite resources. With the world’s largest and most powerful corporations striving to gain access and ownership of everything from rivers to gene pools, women have become the main defenders of community rights and conservation of the planet. This puts them in harm’s way. Especially indigenous and rural women defenders have become targets for attacks from companies and the governments supporting them for standing up to privatization, looting and destructive projects disguised as development. In indigenous communities in Chiapas, Petén and Aguan, indigenous protests against resource grabs are often put down by military forces ostensibly combating organized crime.
Women working to stop mining, megaprojects, dams and other invasions of their rights and lands are entering into conflicts with immensely powerful–and brutal– adversaries. Private security companies hired by wealthy interests, government security forces and paramilitary forces frequently go after people defending their lands and communities, and women are often found on the front lines of these battles.
The third is backlash. When women human rights defenders stand up to human rights attackers, they become the enemy of our worst enemies. Their active role as defenders–seeking justice and truth in the cases of the assassinated and the disappeared, demanding light where strong forces depend on the cover of darkness, urging accountability from government officials with criminal allegiances–makes them despised by shadow powers and by shady official powers. For every step forward in the defense of our rights, they are pushed a step closer to danger.
The Mesoamerican Initiative on Women Human Rights Defenders presented an analysis of attacks on women human rights defenders in 2012. In the region, 38 were assassinated. The group experiencing most attacks were those defending lands, territories and resources. The second largest category is made up of women defending the right to live without violence. Defense of sexual and reproductive rights, political participation, freedom of expression and labor rights follow. In each category the fight runs up against powerful interests that can turn lethal when provoked or crossed.
In the majority of the attacks registered, the aggressor was reportedly the government, whether muncipal, state or federal. Most cases never received a trial.
March 8th is a day to renew our commitment to the struggle of women for lives free of violence and discrimination–from the home, to the street, to the halls of power. It’s unfair to leave the work and the risk to only a few; if more of us support them, and even more importantly, join them, we reduce the risks to any one woman and increase the odds of forging a new way forward for our ailing society and planet.